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UB Ortho physicians volunteer in Vietnam


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UB Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine physicians Mark Anders, M.D., Craig Blum, M.D., and Robert Smolinski, M.D. recently returned from Ho…
June 16, 2010

UB Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine physicians Mark Anders, M.D., Craig Blum, M.D., and Robert Smolinski, M.D. recently returned from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam where they volunteered in performing surgeries sponsored by the Hope for Tomorrow Foundation, founded by plastic surgeon Jeffrey Meilman, M.D.

Dr. Smolinski noted that “these were people who could not afford surgery; without money or insurance, they simply would not get taken care of.”

Robert Smolinski, M.D. (left) and Mark Anders, M.D.
Craig Blum, M.D. (second from left), Mark Anders, M.D. (fourth from left), and Robert Smolinski, M.D. (fifth from right). <i>Photographs courtesy of Robert Smolinski, M.D.</i>

Buffalo News article by News staff reporter Abram Brown

They went for the ones who had fallen through the cracks.

For the children with cleft palates. The ones with fingers fused together. And the girl who wore her sandal backward because her foot was turned the wrong way.

Six Buffalo-area doctors went to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, because no one else planned on helping.

“The saddest thing was to see these children going with these things for so long,” said Robert Smolinski, one of the six doctors.

The doctors — Smolinski, Mark Anders, Craig Blum, Hratch Karamanoukian, Jack Kotlarz and Jeffrey Meilman — left May 28 and got back June 5. Meilman and his foundation footed most of the bill.

In their marathon 100-surgery tour they treated the ones they could and decided to bring someone back, too.

In Ho Chi Minh City, the team split up. The three orthopedic surgeons— Smolinski, Blum and Anders — and Karamanoukian operated in an old veterans hospital built by the U. S. Army before the Vietnam War.

The place was full of open-air passages and courtyards, waiting areas that were covered but exposed to the upper 90-degree heat. Sometimes the light switches shorted out.

The orthopedic surgeons saw patients with congenital defects and trauma injuries. They operated on hands with too many fingers. They looked after the girl who wore her sandal the wrong way and turned her club foot around by releasing the scar tissue in her foot.

“These were people who weren’t going to get treated if someone from the outside wasn’t going to do it,” Smolinski said.

Karamanoukian, a vein specialist, saw a woman with a hole in her ankle that went nearly down to the bone. The woman had high blood pressure in her veins, and that changed the way her skin could heal, Karamanoukian said. One day the woman must’ve gotten a cut near her ankle, and it never healed. Instead it just continued to grow. A weeping wound, Karamanoukian called it.

In a different hospital — a three-story one with a broken elevator — the two plastic surgeons, Meilman and Kotlarz, operated.

Like the other doctors, the plastic surgeons screened some patients before arriving. But the two turned more away when they got there: people who were too sick already or who were chronically ill. The ones they turned away were mostly children. It had taken them hours to go to the city from the countryside villages, and it took the doctors just a few minutes to deny them.

“You should see the terribly disappointed faces of the mothers,” Meilman said.

The plastic surgeons concentrated mostly on children with cleft lips and palates, completing about 10 surgeries each day.

And then there was the 4- year-old girl with a mole on her face the size of an adult’s palm. The girl’s mother had come in from the country, just like the rest, traveling about 2.5 hours. Her mother asked the two plastic surgeons if they could operate. They explained that they couldn’t, that this hospital wasn’t the right place for the extensive surgery her daughter needed.

The mother was distraught, and the two doctors conferenced. “Would you like to come to America?” they asked the mother.

On Sept. 27, Meilman will operate on the girl. He expects it will go well. He still remembers the look on the mother’s face when he asked. “You couldn’t see a happier lady in all of Vietnam,” he said.